The College Fear Factor

The fall semester has begun here in Chicago and for the first time in many years, I am a student again. I’m taking two online courses that are part of an Assessment in Higher Education graduate certificate program. I’m just finishing up my second week of classes and it has been an interesting experience being on this side of the syllabus. Like many students that I teach, I am choosing these classes for career reasons – after I complete the program I will be eligible to apply for advancement to an Associate Professor position. I also happen to think assessment of student learning is quite interesting, which is why I chose this specific program. As a student, I’ve already made a few mistakes mainly with logistical, technology-related issues and I’ve had a few moments when I wondered why I chose to do this at all! I had a couple of questions about my first assignment and, of course, I e-mailed my professors. When I did not hear back from one of them for 48 hours I assumed something was wrong and that maybe I wasn’t even on the roster! I should know better, right? I know that I have the resources, skills, experience, and motivation to be successful in this program of study; to learn new things and to earn a high grade, and yet I still felt anxious. How would I feel if I’d never set foot in a college classroom before? How would I feel or behave if none of my relatives or friends had ever set foot in a college classroom? What if I hadn’t been an “A” student before? What if I had to reduce my work hours and consequently my income in order to take the time I need to complete this coursework?  What if I thought I might lose my job if I was not successful in this course? What if I thought my professor might judge me unfairly based on my class or race or gender? According to Rebecca D. Cox in her book, The College Fear Factor: How students and professors misunderstand one another (2009) from Harvard University Press, “regardless of the path that led each student to college, enrolling in college courses proved to be an immensely stressful transition” (p.21). This book has been a fascinating read. For one reason, it is about community college students and professors. This seems to be a rare occurrence in the scholarship of teaching/learning literature and I appreciate the study Cox did to come to her conclusions. Her methodology for the first study included observing every class session for a developmental English course and a Composition course for a semester. Three additional studies included surveys, focus groups, and interviews with students and professors as well as reading student work and examining instructor feedback. I found the chapter “How is that Helping Us?” to be of particular interest to me as an instructor, but also in my newly refreshed role as a student. All students interviewed in the initial study reported that they “sincerely hoped to learn something important and meaningful in college” but Cox’s observation was that the students had very different concepts of meaningful learning experiences as compared to their professors (p.67). I have had many experiences as an instructor when I’ve designed what I think of as an innovative learning experience in the classroom and my students, especially at the beginning of the semester, want to know when they will get to the real part of the class. They get frustrated at ongoing class discussions. They say that they don’t want to hear from their classmates they want to hear from me. They expect a lecture in which I will give them exactly what they need to know to get an “A” in the course and they want to get this all over with as quickly and as painlessly as possible.  In fact in her research, Cox found that “many students, for instance, defined instruction that was not delivered in the form of a lecture as no instruction whatsoever” (160). I’ve definitely faced this issue as an instructor and I’ve tried to work through it with my students because I want them to develop their own thinking about the course material over time with lots of exposure to the big ideas of my field. But, as a student…I kind of get it! I want my professors to be as clear as possible and I want them to demonstrate their authority on the subject I am studying. Yes, I believe I can benefit from interacting with my classmates, but I do really value hearing from the professor and I want to feel secure in my understanding of what is expected. In these first couple of weeks as a student, I have found that what stresses me out the most is when I feel like I might be missing something – maybe I don’t have the due date down correctly, maybe I’m supposed to be doing something each week and somehow missed that assignment on the syllabus, maybe I missed something that was communicated in the lectures or online discussions and now I don’t have all the information needed to complete the assignments. If I struggle with anxiety when faced with, for example,  unclear assignment descriptions how might students fair who have had very little prior knowledge of the college experience? This book has helped me to think about not only my expectations of what college level work is supposed to look like, but to consider how my studentsview the college experience and what their expectations of their own learning might be. I need to think about their “academic literacy”. As Cox suggests,

First and foremost, the preconceptions students have about college and college instruction, as well as their underlying fear of failure, shape the college experience in fundamental ways, at times preventing learners from the kind of active engagement in their coursework that would be needed for them to succeed (p.158)

How many times have I interpreted disengaged behavior in my students as a disinterest in the course or a demonstration of a lack of skills necessary to be successful in my course? How many times have I been wrong about that?Perhaps this behavior, which I interpret to be disinterest might actually be more about the student’s fear of failure. Have you ever been afraid of failing and simply pulled back, and stopped trying? I have.  This book has made me think about the behaviors I observe in my students, particularly early on in the semester, as more about their own anxiety and less about me, my course, my assignments, my field, etc. In her chapter “Reimagining college from the inside out” Cox states that,

Virtually across the board, an instructor’s efforts to assuage students’ fears functioned as an active invitation to take part in the class and marked the first step toward fostering the perception on the part of students that the coursework they were being asked to accomplish was challenging but ‘doable’. In this way, the most promising pedagogical approach accomplished three crucial goals: it (a) demonstrated the instructor’s competence in the field of study; (b) clarified both the instructor’s expectations for student performance and the procedures for accomplishing the work; and (c) persuaded students that they were more than capable of succeeding (163).

Becoming a student again has been a humbling experience and it has been educational on many different levels. I plan to review my own syllabus and assignment descriptions and think about how students perceive my course. I want to remember this feeling of anxiety that I feel as a student and work hard to support my own students as they work through their own anxieties. As much of the stress literature indicates, learning is negatively impacted when the learner is experiencing a stress response. If I know that fear is a very real experience for most community college students, at least at the beginning of their studies, then I feel obligated as an instructor to try to buffer that stress as much as possible, or at least try to avoid adding to the stress levels students experience.

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8 Responses to “The College Fear Factor”


  1. 1 Kim Horejs September 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    What a wonderful post Carrie. Really makes one think. When at the PDI last summer, one of the speakers featured at ACCESS talked about making that connection with students. He suggested that an instructor try to meet each student on a personal level. This fall, I have decided to try that. I have offered my students “extra credit” (there has to be some incentive) to make an appointment to meet with me during my office time before September 30th. Many have signed up and I have already had the opportunity to meet with some. So far it has been a fabulous experience. I am getting the chance to meet with each student one on one, find out some of their fears and what they are hoping to get out of the class. I am hopeful that making this connection right away will strengthen the success they have with their educational journey!

    Kim

    • 2 cnepstad September 23, 2011 at 10:44 am

      I really like the idea of building appointments in to the expectations for the course. I used to do something like that but gave it up because of the time it took…I’m rethinking that now. I hope you let us know how it goes!

  2. 3 Martha Munoz September 10, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I am taking an accelerated on-line ESL course required in the state of AZ as a requirement for my elementary teaching certification; three credits in three weeks. It is quite the different experience being on this side of the classroom. This spring I taught a masters level course on instructional design and one of the topic was the influence of generational differences in the classroom and how this translates especially in the on-line environment. As a the final major project due date draws near my anxiety level in increasing as the number of days left in the course dwindles. This is a group project and my fellow team members have not been as active in getting started as I would like. Last night when I was having dinner with my adult son It hit me that my team mates were the same ages as my children, thus there are most likely differences in our approach to the assignment. Yet another factor to consider with the diverse populations we serve in our community colleges.

    • 4 cnepstad September 23, 2011 at 10:39 am

      That’s a really good point about the age differences in group projects. I think sometimes the things that make our classes strong can be the very things that make them the most challenging both as teachers and as learners. It’s humbling to be the student again…and the older one at that! Thank you for your comments.

  3. 5 Lynda Snuffer September 13, 2011 at 10:04 am

    I think we all realize the importance of the relationships we need to build in making college life less stressful for our students, but find it hard sometimes to balance our responsibilities. The issue of having clearly defined expectations can assist us in finding the time to spend learning obout our students. This fall I had my students complete a Learning Style Survey and reflect on how they perceived themselves vs. the survey results. This proved to be interesting both for students and myself. I think there are many ways we can support students during those first few weeks that will benefit everyone and create a strong “community of learners” in our classrooms. Thanks for the food for thought, it will help keep it inperspective for me this fall !

    • 6 cnepstad September 23, 2011 at 10:36 am

      Thank you for the comment – I’m so happy to see responses! I like the idea of the Learning Style Survey. Would you be willing to share it with the blog? Or, to ACCESS? If so, send it to me via e-mail and I will either post it here or send it through the ACCESS listserv. Thanks again!

  4. 7 TESOL Course April 13, 2012 at 1:21 am

    Aw, this was an extremely nice post. Finding the time and actual effort to create a great article… but what can I say… I put things off a whole lot and never manage to get nearly anything done.


  1. 1 London, Jamie Oliver, and writing good assignment descriptions « ACCESS to Shared Knowledge & Practices Trackback on October 6, 2011 at 8:26 pm

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